Chelsea Kroll Williams, former Pittsburgh gymnast and victim of abuser Larry Nassar, found empowerment among accusers
It struck Chelsea Kroll Williams how little emotion Larry Nassar showed in a Michigan courtroom as woman after woman stood up and called out his abuse.
“I’ll never forget all those kind women and what they had to say. At times it felt like a massacre. But he only cried twice,” Williams said. “He had the audacity to turn around and look at all of us. … He does not feel guilty.”
Williams, 34, a North Allegheny High School graduate and Wexford native, was a teen when Nassar first abused her. She joined more than 150 survivors who accused Nassar of abusing them over decades as a former doctor for competitive gymnasts in the USA Gymnastics program. One by one, they testified before Judge Rosemarie Aquilina about what Nassar did to them, how it affected them and why the judge should punish him.
Williams, now living in Ann Arbor, Mich., was an “Olympic-level” competitive gymnast in the late 1990s, and Nassar was a go-to physician for young gymnasts nationwide despite disguising sexual abuse as “treatment.”
After seven days of testimony, Aquilina on Wednesday sentenced Nassar to 40 to 175 years in prison — a sentence he won’t start until after he serves a 60-year federal sentence for child pornography. Though he was convicted of sexually assaulting seven people in the Lansing, Mich., area, many more athletes came forward to accuse him of abuse, causing convulsions of blame and demands for reform in the communities where he worked and cultivated alleged victims.
BREAKING:Larry Nassar, former Michigan State and USA Gymnastics doctor, sentenced to 40-175 years in prison for sexually assaulting patients. "I just signed your death warrant," Judge Rosemarie Aquilina says while handing down sentence.
— MLive (@MLive) January 24, 2018
‘He could fix anything’
Williams said Nassar first abused her in 1999, when she hurt herself competing at a national tournament. She was 16.
“He was considered the greatest, a god, people thought he could fix anything,” Williams said.
That reputation led her back to him years later for help with a persistent calf injury suffered in her 20s. He used the same “treatment” on multiple visits, Williams said, which raised some doubts for her considering she’d hurt a completely different part of her body.
“The first time I saw him, he’d referred to his ‘method’ as new… It may seem unbelievable, but I just assumed it had been widely accepted,” she said.
Nassar was “creepily intelligent,” she testified, and that allowed him to spot his victims, know their weaknesses and groom them, while neither his victims nor their parents knew that they were being abused.
Even if people knew he was abusing athletes, Williams said Nassar’s reputation kept them from taking their suspicions and accusations to authorities.
“He created this identity for himself, he had this persona that you’d think things would come crashing down, nobody would believe you,” Williams said.
Even when he came under investigation for child pornography and victims like her started coming forward, it took time for her to believe the extent of it.
“He had such a strong hold on me,” she said. “It took a while, but I came to grips with the fact that he had done this to me.”
‘Army of warrior women’
When Judge Aquilina took the unusual step of opening the “victim impact statement” part of Nassar’s sentencing hearing to all accusers, Williams was unsure of whether to join the others in testifying publicly and identifying herself. She considered remaining anonymous to shield her family, avoid media scrutiny and give herself more time to cope.
But after seeing the first day of testimony and how brave she felt the other accusers were to speak out in front of Nassar, Williams decided to not just be “Victim 118.”
“It started to bring more weight to the situation and to him. … The whole thing was oddly empowering at first,” she said. “To be able to get up and say this in front of him was very powerful and healing for me. I think it was for all of us.”
“It was difficult enough to process I was abused by a predator. But knowing that others enabled it—that is perhaps more difficult to swallow," Chelsea Williams
29 powerful images from the #LarryNassar trial that define bravery: https://t.co/96ufBgnDXd pic.twitter.com/jl7gBkxkr6
— Glamour (@glamourmag) January 26, 2018
"It was as if he created a shrine of his conquests, his victims."–Chelsea Williams said of the photos that Nassar had of famous gymnasts on his clinic wall
— Dvora Meyers (@DvoraMeyers) January 17, 2018
“You’ve created an army of warrior women. This army doesn’t have a white flag to wave,” testified Sterling Riethman, 25, who saw Nassar when she was a 20-year-old diver at Dennison University in Ohio. “What people don’t realize is the sheer muscle it takes in order to face the world with a smile on. To stay focused with the task at hand on any given day and to try and hold on to even a shred of the former me that my friends and family know and love.”
It might sound like a broken record, but so many of these women and girls have disclosed suicide attempts or thoughts during their statements. I'd say dozens have at this point.
— Matt Mencarini (@MattMencarini) January 19, 2018
The first victim to speak was Kyle Stephens, who said Nassar repeatedly abused her from age 6 until 12 during family visits to his home in Holt, Mich.
“I testified to let the world know that you are a repulsive liar and those ‘treatments’ were pathetically veiled sexual abuse,” she said. “Perhaps you have figured it out by now, but little girls don’t stay little forever. They grow into strong women that return to destroy your world.”
When it was Williams’ turn to testify, she excoriated Michigan State University, where Nassar worked, and USA Gymnastics, the sport’s governing body that connected him with so many athletes, for their roles in letting his abuse occur.
“We may have been silenced for years, but it is this silence that bonds us in sisterhood,” Williams testified. “It is this silence that now challenges us to find our voice. We have found it. We are using it.”
Thursday's front page of the Detroit Free Press. pic.twitter.com/FN0X3Bo9fd
— Detroit Free Press (@freep) January 25, 2018
Culture of fear
In her testimony and interview with the Tribune-Review, Williams blamed the culture of competitive gymnastics and the organizations that ran it for allowing Nassar to get away with his abuse for so long.
When she testified, she called gymnastics “a culture that promotes fear of challenging authority, an environment that often breeds mental and physical abuse and a system designed to limit parental involvement.”
Chelsea Williams says obedience, pain, and silent suffering were things that came with being an Elite gymnast, and they were masterfully manipulated by #Nassar. At the time of the abuse, she remembers thinking "it's Larry, he would never hurt you."
— WKAR News (@WKARnews) January 17, 2018
Rachel Denhollander, a Kentucky lawyer, was one of the first former gymnasts to publicly accuse Nassar and the last to testify at his sentencing hearing. She stepped forward after USA Gymnastics was accused in 2016 of mishandling sexual abuse complaints.
In the wake of Nassar’s sentencing, Michigan State University President Lou Anna Simon and Athletic Director Mark Hollis both resigned last week. Other MSU staff already resigned in relation to the case. Those include a gymnastics coach who defended Nassar and was accused of downplaying complaints made in 1997 and a doctor who didn’t disclose to university officials that USA Gymnastics was investigating Nassar.
USA Gymnastics’ President and CEO Steve Penny resigned under pressure in March. On Friday, the organization announced that its entire board of directors would resign after the U.S. Olympic Committee threatened to decertify them unless there was a wholesale change.
USA Gymnastics board to resign amid Nassar fallout https://t.co/Sa3pZFCpGs
— MLive (@MLive) January 27, 2018
In her interview with the Tribune-Review, Williams said she hopes the Nassar case and its fallout will sweep away some of the culture around gymnastics that allowed abuse to flourish. Gymnasts tend to be at their most competitive at a younger age than most other athletes, leaving them more vulnerable to abuse and manipulation, she said.
“One thing that has gone unsaid for many years, the thing about gymnastics is, it’s just children,” she said. “When you’re at the peak of your career, you’re 16 years old. You’re just a kid.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Matthew Santoni is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724 836 6660, email@example.com or on Twitter @msantoni.